WASHINGTON — Bruce Lightner was still in high school when he sneaked out of his home in Raleigh, N.C., before dawn the morning of Aug. 28, 1963.
He hitched a ride up U.S. 1 carrying a peanut butter sandwich and a Thermos of Kool-Aid, climbed a tree on the National Mall and watched as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told tens of thousands of listeners about his dream of racial conciliation.
Next week, Lightner will return to what he calls "that hallowed ground" as the organizer of several buses carrying hundreds of North Carolina residents, many of them witnesses to the Jim Crow era, which King fought to overcome. Along with more than a million others, they'll crowd onto a nearly two-mile grassy stretch of land steeped in significance.
"I think everything's coming full circle, in terms of the civil rights movement and what the Mall represented to it," Lightner said.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Tri-City Herald
Since the nation's beginnings, the National Mall and its environs have played both somber and celebratory roles in African-American and civil rights history, and when President-elect Barack Obama takes his oath of office Tuesday, the setting itself will resonate.
"We're coming to show that a movement has succeeded," said historian Lucy G. Barber, author of "Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition."
"The setting of the Mall is going to reinforce that, because even people from a different generation are going to recognize that," she said. "There was the '63 march, but in fact there's a deeper history."
The U.S. Capitol and the White House, on the Mall's edges, were built with slave labor. Until an agreement in 1850, slaves were bought and sold in Washington, including at a market just a few blocks off the Mall.
Today, the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is under design to be sited on the Mall, in the shadow of the Washington monument.
A new memorial to King himself has been sited at the Tidal Basin, midway between the monuments to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
"The monuments take on layers of meaning," said Judy Scott Feldman, the chairwoman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, a preservation group. "It allows us to look at the Mall not just from a Pollyannaish point of view and to say, 'Don't we have great ideals?,' but to remind us of those ideals and that we're not there yet."
Over the past century, the Mall was the site of many demonstrations for equal rights.
Among the significant events was the free public concert of black opera singer Marian Anderson in 1939.
The Daughters of the American Revolution denied Anderson the chance to perform before an integrated audience at Constitution Hall in Washington.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People fought back, and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt supported its cause to hold a concert by Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Some 50,000 people came.
Two years later, civil rights activists planned a march to the Lincoln Memorial to protest discrimination in the Army and defense jobs. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a compromise prohibiting discrimination in defense jobs — though not in the Army — and the march was called off.
In 1947, the NAACP held a demonstration at the Lincoln Memorial, and President Harry S Truman spoke.
There were civil rights demonstrations in 1957, '58 and '59. Then came King's momentous speech in 1963, and re-enactments in later years.
"The Lincoln Memorial was so powerful, and it was taken by African-Americans as their place in Washington," Barber said.
Eventually, she said, the National Park Service reluctantly put in a marker to honor the spot where King stood for his "I Have a Dream" speech.
The Million Man March was in 1995, and leader Louis Farrakhan turned marchers toward the west front of the U.S. Capitol because the space in front of it held more people than the space in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
"The story of America is of democracy," said Brent Glass, the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. "The National Mall is the most physical representation of a lot of stories about American history."
On Tuesday, Obama will stand in front of the U.S. Capitol to take the oath of office, looking out over a sea of faces of all hues. The Lincoln Memorial will be off in the distance, at the other end of the Mall and almost out of sight of the Capitol's stage.
"You have this dynamic of a president being sworn in, that whole cycle of using the Mall as a site of protest of official action," Barber said. "Now it's as if both sides are united."
Lightner, the youth who hitchhiked from Raleigh to Washington nearly half a century ago, returned home late that night in 1963 to find his mother distraught with worry.
His father, though, didn't say a word.
"I think he was kind of proud of me," Lightner said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY